What do you do when you’ve fallen short of your goals one too many times, you feel defeated, and your motivation is at an all-time low?
What happens when you’ve tried time and time again to put on that muscle, lose that weight, or to turn your health around for the better, but you just can’t seem to push past the plateau? Sometimes, holding onto your “why”, your purpose for getting started in the first place, just isn’t enough, and it feels easier to give up altogether. Oftentimes, that’s exactly what happens. When you’ve fallen off the wagon, it’s so easy to think that you’ve wasted your time, and to forgo getting back on altogether.
Before giving up entirely, allow me to suggest a different tactic. I’m going to challenge you to think about your past failures in a different way, and to reframe them.
Straight out of the gate, I want you consider something that you may not have given thought to before. Perhaps you needed to fall off of the wagon so that you can go get a better vehicle, one that will reliably get you to your destination.
That old wagon that you fell off of so many times? We’ll call it Motivation. It’s gotten you this far, to the point where you’re seeking the answers you need to go further. It’s served an important purpose in your life and has brought you to the point in your journey where you’re looking for new ways to improve, but it’s time for an upgrade.
Willpower and motivation, as you likely know if you’re reading this, can fluctuate due to an infinite number of reasons. Maybe you just saw the new Nike commercial and your motivation is through the roof. Maybe you want to hit the gym right now and squat until your legs fall off. And maybe, if you did go to the gym, you would have the best workout of your life. But what happens tomorrow, when you’re too sore to get out of bed, and just the thought of working out makes you sick to your stomach?
If you’re still falling short of your goals, it’s time to get a new set of wheels. We’ll call this one self-discipline, and it can get you to places that willpower and motivation never could.
What exactly is Self-Discipline?
Merriam-Webster defines self-discipline as the “correction or regulation of oneself for the sake of improvement. I define it as a slow, deliberate process for breaking out of old habits, and establishing new, beneficial ones in their place. That definition is a lot less glamorous than that of motivation, and for that reason, is often passed up in favor of short term, instant gratification by way of self-help books and YouTube videos. But where motivation and willpower are ephemeral and often unreliable, self-discipline is enduring, controllable, and efficient.
There are as many ways to begin building self-discipline in your life as there are people on this earth, and each person will have their own best methods for doing so. But it’s likely you may not know where to start. Here are just a few of the ways I practice self-discipline in my own life as an Olympic athlete, that I believe can help you in yours as well.
1. You Will Make Mistakes. Document them objectively.
Know ahead of time that when you are striving towards a goal, and especially a complex one like losing a lot of weight, or building a lot of muscle, you are going to make mistakes. Sometimes, these mistakes may repeat themselves and in an incredibly frustrating cycle.
When mistakes happen, as they inevitably will, look at them objectively, and as separate from your character — they’re only the result of the unworthy habits of your past, rather than a present aspect of you personally. Failure is simply an opportunity to learn and try something new. If you’ve failed a lot in the past, then you have plenty of lessons to apply in the present.
Dwelling on your shortcomings, on the other hand, leads to internalizing your failures as part of your character. When that happens, you’re essentially reprogramming more unworthy habits into your mind, which then causes more mistakes to happen, which then surfaces more feelings of guilt and failure, continuing the vicious cycle over and over again. It takes a certain level of self-awareness to begin correcting the causes of your mistakes before they even happen. The good news is that by acknowledging them openly, you’re already on the right path. Keeping a journal will allow you to bring the subconscious habits that drive your mistakes out of your head, and onto the page in front of you. By periodically reviewing what you’ve written, you’ll start to notice what triggers those behaviors. Once you begin to notice them, you can begin to correct them.
2. Consistency Makes All the Difference. Remain Persistent.
I was recently asked about how to restart an exercise program when you’ve failed so many times in the past. The person who asked me this was bouncing between cycles of hitting workouts too hard and then feeling defeated for being “out of shape”, versus starting out slowly and not feeling any progress whatsoever. There are two suggestions that immediately came to mind upon reading their submission.
The first, while specific to exercise, includes goal setting at-large: Start small, and let the momentum build. When exercising, it’s more productive to start off slowly progress gradually, rather than jump in head first with the latest Crossfit WOD . When you begin slowly, you start building momentum by developing keystone habits, such as resting and recovering well. Then, over time, as those central habits become a natural part of your routine, your progress will take on a snowball effect, and you can develop skills you never imagined having at the start. But, this is all dependent on being patient and dedicated in maintaining your core disciplines.
When starting out slowly, you may feel that you’re not working out as hard as you could be, and you know what? You might not be. But the goal here is to build lasting changes in your life, and that can’t happen overnight. By sticking with any exercise over time, you will be much fitter than when you first began, even if you don’t feel like you’ve made any progress. Don’t believe me? Try to do 5 push ups every day for the next month. I can guarantee you that you’ll be stronger by the end of the month than you would be by trying to knock out 150 push ups today alone, because consistency makes all the difference. To quote Ovid, “the dripping of water hollows out stone not through force, but through persistence.”
Start with an exercise — any exercise — do it regularly, and you will become stronger. And should the time come that you fall off the wagon, view the process of getting back on not as a restart, but as a continuation of progress toward your goal.
3. Monitor and Correct Your Self-Talk.
This second suggestion to the question I received may be counterintuitive, but in my experience, the biggest problem most people have with exercise has little to do with their bodies, and most to do with their self talk. In the anonymous submission from the previous example, the person said, and I quote, “I feel defeated because I am so out of shape.” While the physical concerns of starting too fast or slow with a training routine are completely legitimate, negative results are often the byproduct of this type of thinking.
There is a certain ideal in the world of what “being in shape” looks like. Here’s the thing: What “in shape” looks like will be completely different for everybody and every body. For one person, “in shape” may be simply mean being able to walk up a flight of stairs instead of taking the elevator at work. For another, it might be running a full marathon. No matter what it might be, start defining what your definition of being “in shape” looks like. By stating that “I am so out of shape”, you are literally reinforcing the subconscious thought pattern that you will never be in shape. And if you believe subconsciously that you will never be in shape, then it doesn’t matter how many pushups you do or group fitness classes you attend, you will never be in shape.
Start thinking of yourself as being in the best shape of your life right now. There is something you’ve already done today that qualifies you as being very in shape, something that you probably take for granted, but someone else with less than you sees as their ultimate goal. Perhaps you need to try a completely different type of exercise that’s outside of your comfort zone. Or, maybe you need to stick with one thing long enough to create change. Whatever it is, as long as you go forth thinking you are not in shape enough, not skinny enough, not strong enough, or not good enough, no amount of exercise will change that for you.
One of Napoleon Hill’s most prolific quotes says that “Whatever the mind can conceive and believe, the mind can achieve, regardless of how many times you may have failed in the past, or how lofty your aims and hopes may be.” You are what your subconscious thoughts say you are. So, start convincing yourself today that you are fit, and your body will begin to reflect that reality. And if you need a little bit of help pushing beyond those mental barriers, I’m here for you.
4. Appreciate the Small Wins.
One of the biggest mistakes we can make is to favor the outcome of our goals, rather than the process of reaching them. It’s the process of striving for our goals that causes their manifestation. Let’s say you wanted to go to the gym every day of the week, and only make it there 6 times out of 7. Does that make you a failure?
That was a trick question, but how you answered it says a lot about how you perceive yourself. As mentioned previously, you are what your subconscious thoughts say you are. So if, in fact, you only made it to the gym for those 6 days, yes you fell short of your goal, and though you may have failed in reaching it, you, yourself, are not a failure. Seeing this objectively allows you to focus on changing the things in that are your control, release attachment to what is not, and appreciate the fact that you’ve maintained enough discipline to come this close. While you may not have reached your goal, and you shouldn’t stop until you do, you now have the chance to reassess the shortcoming, and learn a lesson that will get you closer the next time. That’s a small win.
5. Do What You Don’t Feel Like Doing.
What I’ve noticed recently in my life is that the things I just don’t feel like doing, are often the exact things that will get me closer to where I want to be. Think about it: it’s usually what we avoid doing — like getting up at the first alarm, planning meals ahead of time, or not skipping leg day — that we end up beating ourselves up for later on. I’ve begun to make a legitimate habit out of doing exactly what I don’t want to do, right when I feel myself beginning to avoid it, and to say that it’s transformed my life is no overstatement.
The benefits of pushing through your self-imposed inertia are countless. Once you begin do something that you once avoided, you start to realize that the apprehension and anxiety welling in your head prior to its completion was just smoke in mirrors. That realization, in and of itself, serves as a source of the most impactful type of motivation — the type that comes from within.
That’s a major key. By building discipline in various areas of your life, you generate your own willpower. No amount of compliments or motivational YouTube montages is more valuable than the intrinsic motivation gained by stepping — and thriving — outside of your comfort zone.
At its essence, this is what developing discipline is all about. You are, more times than not, not going to feel like doing the very things that will help you grow. But it’s only on the outside of our comfort zones that we can progress toward our goals.
Take some time to let that sink in. Every stage of human development involves adversity. Just to even exist, one sperm had to win a race against millions. Once born, the infant must fall hundreds of times before mastering the art of independent mobility. I won’t even get into what it’s like going to high school in the 21st century.
Breaking out of old habits is a hard process, but I’d say living under the self-imposed shame of continually falling short is much harder. Success lies on the other side of difficulty, and adversity is the catalyst for growth. You will learn a lot more by going through a difficult situation, than by running away from it. Accept that simple truth, and life becomes a whole lot less scary.
6. Take Decisive Action.
It’s one thing to read these words, but you’ve got to actually put in the work in order for any of it to matter. Right now, before you forget, grab something to write with and something to write on. You’re going to write a letter to yourself declaring each of your desires as already being fulfilled, telling yourself why you won’t stop until your goal is yours in hand. This is your promise to yourself to keep going under any and all circumstances until you’re successful. Sign it, date it, and keep it in a place you can access it at will. This can be in your journal, or in your phone, just make sure it’s easily accessible, and read it every day.
Every time — and I mean every time — that a shred of doubt or a negative thought enters your mind, open up the letter, and read through it entirely. So, if you’ve tried and failed to lose weight before, the instant you find yourself thinking something like “I’ll never shed these pounds”, open up and read your letter.
The truth is that if you want to change your body, or anything else in your life, you’ve got to change your mind. This practice will help you do just that, while building self discipline in the process. You may feel pretty bashful when you begin, but do it regardless. Eventually, after weeks of reading it over and over again, you’ll begin to replace your fears and doubts with faith and self-belief.
Perhaps you’ve read this entire post, and don’t feel like doing any of the things I’ve listed. That’s exactly why you should (see point number 5). Developing self-discipline is an active choice, and unlike being motivated, it is entirely in your control. By putting your effort into building and maintaining discipline in your life, achieving your goals becomes a natural byproduct. You may think of this cynically, but if you’ve failed to reach your goals before, what do you have to lose?